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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New York State of Mind

Quick quiz: Do the Knicks have a higher winning percentage this year in Mike D'Antoni's first season with the team than they did in 2006-07, Isiah Thomas' first season as New York's coach? With all of the positive buzz you hear about the Knicks wooing LeBron and flirting with a playoff berth and being so fun to watch, you'd think that they have made some quantum leap in the standings--but the reality is that after Monday's loss to Orlando their record is actually a couple hundredths of a percentage point worse than their final record in 2007.

Here is an in depth look at how this year's Knicks compare to the Knicks teams from the past couple seasons when Thomas was at the helm (note that the article was finished on Sunday night, so the cited winning percentage for the Knicks does not reflect Monday's loss):

The New York Knicks started off the Mike D'Antoni era with a 6-3 record, though that mark may have been deceptively good considering that four of the wins came at the expense of Charlotte, Washington, Memphis and Oklahoma City. Since that time, the Knicks have gone just 22-38, including their current four game losing streak "highlighted" by back-to-back home blowout defeats at the hands of New Jersey (115-89) and Sacramento (121-94), a team that had lost 28 straight games this season versus Eastern Conference opponents. To paraphrase an oft quoted (but possibly apocryphal) declaration by tennis pro Vitas Gerulaitis, "The Eastern Conference cannot beat the Kings 29 times in a row!"

The way that the Knicks bolted out of the gate and the high-scoring, fast-paced style that D'Antoni uses created a lingering buzz suggesting that D'Antoni has transformed the Knicks from their losing ways under previous coach Isiah Thomas -- but is that perception really accurate?

Al Harrington, Nate Robinson, David Lee and Chris Duhon are each posting single-season career high scoring averages but all of those points have not been converted into extra wins; D'Antoni has turned the Knicks into a more exciting team to watch with his seven seconds or less offensive philosophy but the reality is that in terms of the bottom line -- wins and losses -- the Knicks are not much better than they were when Isiah Thomas ran the show; Thomas had a .402 winning percentage in his first season on New York's bench, virtually identical to the .406 winning percentage that D'Antoni has posted so far in his first season in New York.

Of course, Knicks' fans surely remember that in Thomas' second season as New York's coach, the team's winning percentage dropped to .280, which is exactly the winning percentage that Larry Brown had in his only season as New York's coach (in the year prior to Thomas taking over the coaching duties); the hope/expectation in New York is that the Knicks will steadily improve under D'Antoni and not regress the way that they did under Thomas but that is why the team's late season collapse should raise eyebrows: Several key statistics suggest that the Knicks are what their record says they are -- a lower tier team, albeit one that now plays at a much faster pace.

The Knicks have improved from 21st in scoring last season (96.9 ppg) to fourth this season (105.6 ppg) but they have dropped from 22nd in points allowed (103.5 ppg) to 28th (108.2 ppg) and their point differential of -2.6 ppg ranks in the bottom third of the league (22nd), only a few spots better than last season (-6.6 ppg, 25th). The Knicks were last in field-goal percentage differential last season (-.036) and they are last again this season (-.038). Although Lee has emerged as a nightly double-double threat, the Knicks have markedly declined overall on the boards, dropping from 18th in rebounding differential (-.1) to 27th (-3.9). A team that consistently gets out-shot and out-rebounded obviously has no realistic chance to be successful, no matter how many points it scores or how many players post career high individual numbers.

The proper question about D'Antoni's offensive-oriented approach is not whether a fast-breaking team can make the playoffs or even contend for a championship. The Showtime Lakers in the 1980s and the Bill Russell-led Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s proved that you can score a lot of points while winning multiple championships. More recently, when the Spurs consistently eliminated D'Antoni's Suns from the playoffs the Spurs showed that they could win fast-paced games or slow-paced games because they defended and rebounded at a high level on a consistent basis.

No, the proper question is how far a team can go while completely neglecting the defensive end of the court -- and NBA history strongly suggests that such teams do not win titles. When casual fans think of the six-time champion Chicago Bulls they may most remember Michael Jordan's scoring exploits but those teams consistently rebounded and defended well, which enabled them to win playoff games even when Jordan did not shoot well. For instance, en route to the 1996 championship the Bulls won seven of the eight playoff games in which Jordan shot .440 or worse from the field.

Another great example is Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals: Jordan shot just 9 of 25 (.360) and fellow future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen shot 6 of 18 but Pippen snared a game-high 12 rebounds and Jordan had nine rebounds as the Bulls dominated the boards 50-34 and eked out an 88-83 victory.

The Suns, Warriors and Knicks will miss the playoffs this year not because they score a lot of points but rather because they neglect defense and/or rebounding. After all, the Lakers are the third highest scoring team in the league and they are in contention for the best overall record; the difference is that the Lakers defend and rebound much better than the Suns, Warriors and Knicks do. The Nuggets, Jazz and Magic rank 6th-8th in scoring -- not too far behind the Knicks -- but those teams will all make the playoffs this year.

The Knicks have not had a winning record since 2000-01. They have been bad for a long time and it may take a while before they are good again. No one should rush to judgment after D'Antoni's first season with the franchise but there are two interesting dynamics to watch with the Knicks, namely what roster changes new team president Donnie Walsh makes in the next year or two and whether or not D'Antoni is willing/able to coax a better defensive performance out of this team.

"Defense" may be a four letter word to D'Antoni but if the Knicks want to spell a certain 12 letter word -- "championship" -- for the first time since 1973 then defense will have to become a part of their collective vocabulary, as should be obvious by watching the teams who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, Cleveland and defending NBA champion Boston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 PM

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